Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are back. So are Mycroft Holmes, Mrs. Hudson, and Professor Moriarty. In fact, almost all the usual Sherlockian trappings — the London criminal underground, incompetent police, impossible murders — show up in the BBC’s Sherlock, premiering in the States on 24 October on PBS. This time, however, they’re set in 2010.
The change is less disquieting than you might think, as Holmes and Watson have always been thoroughly modern men. And indeed, the focus of the new series is much the same as that of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — the relationship between Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) and their mutual need of each other. Sherlock, co-created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, does have fun with the idea that grown men living together today are assumed to be gay, and Watson goes out of his way to discourage such assumptions, but again, his primary job is to smooth over damage done by Holmes’ lack of social skills and empathy. At the same time, the affable Watson finds the thrills he wants in his work with Holmes. Though the times have changed, their symbiotic friendship has not.
The major difference between today’s London and that of the 1890s is, of course, technology. Holmes and company text, blog, and use PDAs and forensic science, though Sherlock effectively argues that while such bells and whistles might speed up Holmes’ deductions, they do not create them. These tools often make sleuthing look easy on other crime shows — as if anyone with access to the right databases could determine the identity and whereabouts of a murderer — but in Sherlock, they only support Holmes’ deductive powers and Watson’s sound science.
To that point, Holmes enters the first episode, “A Study in Pink,” via a guerilla text message sent to police and journalists. Watson, a soldier just back from Afghanistan (a scenario that mirrors the original in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet,” on which this episode is based) has been ordered by his shrink to start a blog to help with his PTSD. Hence he serves as Holmes’ documentarian and link to the outside world.
In this role, Watson is both different from and quite like his subject. Traditionally described as an “Everyman” to Holmes’ superman, here Watson is extraordinary in his own way, as he repeatedly, and rather gleefully, sacrifices his personal safety in the interest of adventure. He also puts up with Holmes’ casual cruelty, going so far as to move in with him at the famed 221B Baker Street address. Holmes describes himself as “a highly functioning sociopath,” and here we see that he’s a difficult roommate. Indeed, a recurring point of discussion between Holmes and Watson is Holmes’ lack of empathy towards, well, anyone, and his insistence that he solves crimes not to help others, but to avoid being crushed by his own boredom. Watson guides Holmes in how normal people think and how to speak to them –invaluable skills when trying to gather information.
Like Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes, the show underscores Holmes’ eccentricities. The Conan Doyle stories note these oddities in passing, but Victorian readers were not accustomed to heroes with poor manners and what was then described as the quirks of the criminal classes. During the past century, psychology, modernism, and anti-heroes from Batman and Travis Bickle to Tyler Durden have made the audiences of 2010 expect and accept flawed heroes. Holmes’ wit and general weirdness here make him seem a genius who is genuinely confused by human emotions.
He is very good at detecting, however, a point made clear when he and Watson examine their first body in “A Study in Pink.” The doctor’s medical skills provide gentle support for Holmes’ reasoning. A rash of serial suicides has hit London, and Holmes’ rapid-fire searches on his PDA appear in text on the screen, allowing a degree of audience participation that seems influenced by PlayStation 3’s “Heavy Rain.”
The following episode is less interested in technological tricks and more on the deepening friendship between Holmes and Watson. In “The Blind Banker,” a Chinese tea ceremony expert goes missing, a banker is found dead, and a journalist is murdered and also locked within his apartment. The same strange symbols are found near all three. Loosely based on “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” the episode transforms the chalk scribblings on a barn door to spray-painted graffiti inside an ultra-secure bank, but its focus on books, fisticuffs, and the circus shows a certain affinity for analog. Sherlock and Watson still investigate the old-fashioned way — by breaking into apartments, going to the library, and dodging bullets — with each scene developing their repartee. Their evident high regard for each might explain why Holmes insists on going along on Watson’s first date with colleague Sarah (Zoe Tellford), and Watson’s putting up with it.
Holmes is still prying into Watson’s burgeoning love life at the start of the third and weakest episode in this series, “The Great Game,” which is long on story ideas and short on sense. Sherlock and Watson are required to solve five — yes, five — mysteries that are connected by only the loosest of threads. This episode most closely follows the stylistic conventions of the contemporary thriller: it ends with a cliffhanger, features an arch-nemesis (or two), and rips through the story so quickly the viewer doesn’t get the chance to realize how silly the plots all are until after it’s over.
Holmes and Watson are initially approached by Mycroft Holmes (Gatiss) to find the stolen plans for the Bruce-Partington missile (updated from the Bruce-Partington submarine in the original story). Watson investigates on his own, and the scenes where he and Holmes are separated are the weakest of the series. As they pursue resolutions for cases including a 20-year-old murder and two other deaths, the audience is left as confused as DI Lestrade (Rupert Graves). The major flaw of “The Great Game” is not allowing Sherlock and Watson to work enough as a team.
This flaw makes clearer what the other episodes do well, which is to emphasize the most interesting and important aspect of the original stories, Holmes and Watson’s complicated and entertaining relationship. No matter the technological advances or the changes in social expectations: that, my dear, is elementary.